Under Maryland labor laws, employees work at will, which means that their employment can be terminated at any time and for any reason. A person’s employment can be terminated for no reason at all. There are a few exceptions to at-will employment in Maryland.
Maryland labor laws protect employees from being fired for discriminatory or retaliatory reasons, such as the employee’s exercising of certain rights. If the termination violates the terms of a contract of employment, it can lead to a claim of breach of contract. As is the case in many other states, Maryland’s wrongful termination laws are modeled after federal statutes.
What Is “At-Will” Employment?
Under Maryland employment law, employment is generally considered to be “at-will” unless a person’s employment contract provides otherwise. This means that employers may terminate an employee’s employment for any reason or for no reason at all, as long as it is not for a discriminatory or retaliatory reason. And, by the same token, employees are free to quit their jobs whenever they wish.
Maryland law does not allow discrimination in employment and that rules applies to the termination of employment as well. So termination cannot be based on race, color, gender, national origin, ancestry, sex, religion, age, disability, marital status, pregnancy status, gender identity, or sexual orientation.
Maryland law also makes it illegal for an employer to retaliate against an employee for exercising certain rights that they have under the law. For example, if the employee complains about the employer to the company’s HR department because of having been passed over for promotion on the basis of their gender or age, the employer may not discipline or fire the employee for registering the complaint.
Are There Exceptions to “At-Will” Terminations?
The fact that employment in Maryland is generally at-will makes it more difficult to succeed with a claim for wrongful termination. There are, however, several exceptions to the at-will standards:
- Breach of an Implied Contract: In some instances, Maryland courts have ruled that the oral statements of an employer can create an implied contract of continued employment or employment that can only be terminated for cause. For example, if an employer told the employee that they would keep their job so long as performance is satisfactory, it could form the basis for an implied contract providing that as long as the employee performed satisfactorily, their employment would not be terminated. Statements in company handbooks or manuals or written policies and procedures can also create implied contracts;
- Breach of an Express Contract: If a person has an express contract in writing that states that their employment is for a specified term or will not be terminated except under certain specified conditions, then the employer cannot terminate the employment unless the termination complies with the express terms of the written agreement; if the employer terminates the employment in violation of the terms of the express contract, then the employee can file a lawsuit for breach of contract;
- Discrimination: Employers cannot terminate employees for discriminatory reasons, e.g. on the basis of a protected characteristic such as age, gender, pregnancy status, race or nationality and other protected characteristics as specified above;.
- Public Policy Limitations: Employers cannot terminate employees if the reason for the termination would violate public policy. Examples of public policy violations include firing an employee because the employee:
- Filed a workers’ compensation claim;
- Had to miss work because they were required to serve on a jury or serve in the military;
- Refused to commit an illegal act per the employer’s instructions or requests;
- Refused to work in an unsafe environment;
- Asserted their legal right to be paid for overtime work;
- Asserted their legal right to be paid a minimum wage;
- Filed complaints or testified in proceedings related to violations of workplace safety laws;
- Reported illegal activity by their employers to the appropriate government agencies.
Employers who have at least 15 employees must comply with Maryland’s discrimination law.
What Are the Steps to Sue for Wrongful Termination in Maryland?
There is a process for Maryland wrongful termination cases if a person’s case involves discrimination or retaliation. For example, before filing a lawsuit for discrimination or retaliation, a person must file a complaint with the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights. This is the state agency that enforces the state’s laws prohibiting discrimination. The Commission has offices in several Maryland cities. Complaints of discrimination in employment, including termination of employment, must be filed within six months of the date the person’s employment was terminated.
If a person believes they are a victim of unlawful discrimination, the first step in filing a complaint is to initiate an inquiry using a form that can be found online at the Commission’s web site. After this online form is completed, the Commission’s Intake Unit contacts the person to schedule an interview. A person must complete the interview, and sign and return any and all necessary documents (including the Charge of Discrimination) to the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights before the complaint is considered to have been officially filed.
In many cases, state fair employment practices agencies will register a person’s complaint of discriminatory firing with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency that enforces federal antidiscrimination laws. However, a person should check to make sure. If not, the person may also have to file a complaint with the EEOC themselves.
This preliminary step would not be necessary if a person is claiming that their termination constituted a breach of an employment contract, whether it was written, oral or implied. In a case of breach of contract or wrongful termination, a person may file a lawsuit in the circuit court for the jurisdiction in which the person lives.
In addition to the possibility of filing a court action, certain government employees may have administrative remedies. For example, employees of the State of Maryland may be able to pursue certain remedies before the State Office of Administrative Hearings. Employees of Baltimore City may be able to challenge their termination (including on the basis of lack of “just cause”) in a hearing before the Baltimore City Civil Service Commission.
And certain federal employees have legal protections offered by the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, an independent agency established for the purpose of protecting federal employees against partisan political and other prohibited personnel practices.
What are the Remedies For Wrongful Termination in Maryland?
A successful wrongful termination claim in Maryland can result in remedies for the employee. These include money damages for back pay, reinstatement to one’s job position, damages for the value of lost benefits and other types of damages. The remedies for wrongful termination will depend on the particular harm that the plaintiff suffered.
The employer may also be required to pay additional damages for emotional distress or pain and suffering, or punitive damages for especially egregious behavior on the part of the employer. In a few cases it may even be possible to recover attorney fees and court costs.
In a case for breach of an employment contract, the employee may expect to recover compensatory damages that are directly related to losses they sustained because of the loss of their employment.
Should I Consult With an Attorney?
A qualified Maryland wrongful termination lawyer can explain how Maryland law affects your case and what your options are. An experienced Maryland lawyer can help you determine whether there is a legal basis for a claim of wrongful termination in your situation and can help you navigate the requirements of filing a claim with the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights, if your termination was discriminatory. If you decide to pursue your case, your lawyer can help you navigate the court system, represent you in court, and help you recover the monetary damages you deserve. You are most likely to get the best possible outcome in your case if you have an experienced Maryland employment lawyer representing your interests.